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Every year I try to post at least one story on Christmas Day. Last year I didn't, because I was working full-time and had a three-month-old. But this year, I have three stories. The first is this, the next chapter in a long-going The Little Mermaid story.



The Time is Out of Joint
by K. Stonham
first released 25th December 2014

The wedding happened at the height of summer, and unlike Eric's aborted nuptials, there had been nearly a year's notice given. His presence was expected, and not to attend would, at the least, have be considered a slight.

So he set sail for Arendelle, royal galleon packed with gifts, diplomats, formal outfits, and personal retainers.

It quickly became very clear that, his stated wishes to the contrary notwithstanding, several of those diplomats and retainers were keen to see him make a match with the elder of Arendelle's sisters, Queen Elsa.

A marriage between them, he admitted, would make sense. Neither he nor Elsa were engaged. Their kingdoms were neighbors and could be merged, making them a larger force to be reckoned with. He had notably been drawn to a magical princess... and Elsa was a magical queen. She was beautiful, kind, wise, and confident in her own skin and power the way few royals of their generation were. Eric freely admitted that she had many fine qualities.

But she wasn't Ariel. And because his heart belonged elsewhere, any contract between them would be nothing but a lie.

He sighed, and watched the dancers. Princess Anna and her new husband were among them, and it was amusing to see how Prince Kristoff's awkwardness melted away once he was moving instead of being forced to socialize. Eric had never before been to a wedding which had both a reindeer and a living snowman as witnesses. He had to admit he found the oddity charming, and had needed to conceal his laughter at the reactions of several of the stuffier emmisaries.

"Not hungry?" asked Queen Elsa. She and Eric were seated side by side, presumably due to some collaboration between his retainers and hers.

He looked down at his plate. Cod, delicately seasoned and sauteed, lay untouched on its gilded surface. "I don't eat fish."

She arched a delicate eyebrow and beckoned a servant over. There was a brief murmured conversation between them, then Eric's plate was whisked away and Elsa sat back straight in her seat. "She'll bring you something else."

"Thank you."

Elsa smiled. "I'd be a poor hostess to let my guests go hungry, especially on this sort of occasion."

His glass of sparkling wine was deftly refilled, as was hers. "You realize they're trying to matchmake us," Eric said, meaning the servants, diplomats, even the queen's sister.

The queen sipped at her drink. "I know." Her eyes roamed the room. "Would you care to tell me why they're failing? I know it's not because you're afraid." Her hand flicked, an anomalous gesture that nonetheless clearly indicated the exquisite ice sculptures adorning the tables. "And I know it's not because you're not brave enough to court the Snow Queen." She smiled again, expression amused and wry. "We hear tales, even here in Arendelle, of your sea-going bravery, Prince Eric."

"It's easy enough to be brave," Eric said, "when the sea won't have you."

Elsa blinked, and he saw that he'd surprised her.

"If you hear tales," he said, "then you know I once loved a mermaid princess. Ariel."

Elsa nodded.

"That was, what, six years ago?" Eric asked. "Almost seven now. And since then, I've been swept overboard a few times. It happens to every sailor. Every time, a dolphin or turtle or shark just happens to be right there, hoisting me aboard again. Once I figured that out... it becomes a lot easier to save men from wrecks when you know the sea king will not allow you near his kingdom or his daughter."

"That's... a very bitter thing," Elsa said.

Eric shrugged. "I have my duty, as Ariel has hers."

Elsa laid a hand on his arm, her expression concerned. "Duty alone is no way to live. I've done that."

Eric smiled. It was a thin, wry thing. "I've heard. Forgive me, your majesty, I'm being maudlin and ruining a happy day."

She shook her head. "Not in the least." She paused, and her eyes searched the room again before Elsa said quietly, "I've been queen three years now. And yet no one, not one appropriate suitor, has stepped forward to seek my hand. Do you know what that tells me, Prince Eric?"

He grimaced. "I... can imagine. I've been in taverns where they didn't know who I was. I've heard the jokes about what Prince Eric of Daneland does to fish. I imagine there are similar slurs on the subject of the Snow Queen."

"Exactly." Elsa looked back out at the dancers. "I love my sister. I'm so happy she's found someone... sensible, and wholly in love with her. But what kind of person would I be if I wasn't just a tiny bit jealous?"

"Hey." Eric laid his hand over hers and gave Elsa a smile. "You've got time. Just because the rest of us are fools or already married...."

***


Two years later, his best smile in place, Eric thanked his guests for coming, and invited them to enjoy the party. It was nominally to celebrate his kingdom's new trade treaty with Arendelle, but he knew Grimsby's purpose was actually to remind Eric that he had a birthday.

Which Eric, honestly, would have preferred to forget.

Smiling and glad-handing as best as he could, he nonetheless gradually made his way to the edge of the room, and the minute he thought he was unnoticed, slipped out a side door and hid from his guests.

He stalked from shadow to shadow until he reached the sea side of his castle. There, among the waves and salt air, he let himself relax. Unthinkingly, his hand dipped into his inner breast pocket and pulled out his fife.

It had been eight years. But still, sometimes when he came here and played, he thought he heard her voice, twining music with his.

And sometimes he knew he did.

But she never showed herself. And he never knew when it would be.

Eventually his notes drew to a close. Eric closed his eyes and lowered his head.

Ariel wasn't here tonight.

"It's hard, isn't it, being alone?"

Eric turned.

Queen Elsa, her hair glowing in the moonlight, stood behind him. "May I join you, Prince Eric?"

"Of course." With a wave, he invited her to the balustrade.

Elsa drew up beside him and was silent for a moment, the ice-fabric of her dress glittering in the moonlight. Then her blue eyes slid sideways, looked at him. "We would not have made a good match, you and I."

Eric sighed. "We might have, once." He looked back out to the sea. "Before I lost my heart to someone else. People can grow to love each other, you know. I'm told my parents did."

"Mmm." She pursed her lips, then her mouth curved up. "You know, you have the seafolk. Arendelle has... well, you remember my brother-in-law Kristoff?"

Eric nodded. Prince Kristoff was one of the odder princes he'd met, but seemed a good sort nonetheless. And Princess Anna clearly adored him.

"He was raised by trolls."

For a moment, Eric thought he must have heard wrong. "What?"

Elsa's expression was sly. "I attended his and Anna's Trollish wedding. It was three days before the human one. It was... interesting."

Eric realized he was gaping. He shut his mouth. "That... that explains so much about him."

"Doesn't it?" Elsa grinned.

And like that, Eric found laughter bubbling out of himself.

When it eventually subsided, Elsa was still there, her arms crossed on the balustrade as she leaned forward, looking out at the sea. "You've been miserable all evening," she said softly. "Every time we meet, you seem miserable. And I don't think I'm the only one concerned. Your people love you, Eric."

"I know." Eric crossed his own arms, matching her pose. "I just... I can't love anyone else, Elsa. She's the one."

Elsa nodded. "I know how you feel. If not for Anders...."

That made Eric smile. He'd actually been present, visiting Arendelle, the day Prince Anders of the Southern Isles had been presented at Elsa's court, sent as an emissary to open diplomatic overtures and attempt to make amends for his younger brother's attempted murder of both Princess Anna and Queen Elsa.

Eric had never seen a man look so poleaxed as Anders had at his first glimpse of Elsa. The third son of the Southern Isles fell, and fell hard, for the magical monarch. And though Elsa had initially been hesitant, she had eventually accepted his courtship. Eric had been present at their wedding too, and had never seen anyone so radiant as the young Queen had been that day. True love did that to people.

But Elsa had been through a lot, and though she was Eric's junior, in some ways she seemed wiser than anyone else in their generation. She now put a hand on Eric's arm and met his gaze. "You told me once to have faith, that love would come when it was time." she said. "I'll tell you the same now. Have faith in yourself and in your princess. If the heart is true, and this is meant to be... it will happen. One way or another."

She turned, then, and left him, the ice-crystal fabric of her cloak floating behind her as she walked back to the ballroom. Eric watched her go, took a deep breath. He lifted his fife back to his lips. Tonight, he would allow himself just one more song. One more moment of loneliness and self-pity. Then he would return to his ballroom, his people and his duties.

*~*~*


Author's Note: The title is from Hamlet. And I couldn't resist the crossover with Frozen, given that both movies are based on Hans Christian Andersen stories. My personal headcanon is that the storm in Frozen that sank the king and queen's ship was the one that Ursula stirred up at the climax of The Little Mermaid. Particularly given that the creative staff said in their Reddit AMA that the king and queen were going to a wedding....
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